When I went to Latin America in 1997 I couldn't understand why such loving, warm people were killing each other.
I hadn't really planned to go to Colombia but the opportunity presented itself. The Costa Rican family I was living with at the time asked why I was going there."Colombia is feo (unpleasant, bad). Don't go there. Stay here in Costa Rica for Semana Santa (Holy Week)," the father insisted. Yet, every time someone tells me not to do something, I do it. The following day I flew to Colombia.
Semana Santa is the Latin version of a "Canadian Christmas," as far as a mass cultural celebration goes. Colombia is 95 percent Catholic and people take very seriously Christ's ascension to heaven. For a week, celebrations and festivities take over, buses and taxis stop running and very few planes fly; which is one reason I was able to get a cheap flight into the country. I was told, since transportation was minimal during Holy Week, it would be hard to get around.
In Colombia there exist over 1,500 species of birds and more species of animals and plants than anywhere else in the world. Yet despite these facts, another statistic glares in the history records. Every 80 minutes someone is killed by the ongoing civil war. According to Statistics Canada, in 1999 there were 555 murders in Canada (population 30,000,000). In Colombia (population 38,000,000), there was an estimated 23,000 killings, of which 90% go unpunished.
Colombia is blessed with some of the richest natural resource lands in the Americas, and because it borders both the Caribbean and the Pacific, it is being targeted as a future trade centre. Half of the world's emeralds come from Colombia. Coffee, sugar cane, bananas, and rice crops flourish, yet many farmers are being forced to grow cocaine and heroin crops. Since the opium crops of the drug lords are being destroyed by the U.S. -sponsored military, they turn to the small farmers for the use of their land. Those farmers who refuse are attacked by the drug-funded paramilitary, and violently forced from their land. With no money or land to restart, these farmers are beginning to crowd the areas of unfertile land. They become internal refugees, trapped, kept from using the only skills they know, while the government does little to help these farmers regain their land. To date there are 1.5 million internal refugees in Colombia.
Colombia is the United States's third largest recipient of military aid. Most of the money goes into stopping the drug trade. Military crop-dusting planes and helicopters spray herbicides to kill coca plants, often damaging water supplies and neighboring crops. This spraying of glyphosate herbicide began in 1992. It is a major cause of deforestation, since the coca growers are forced deeper into the jungles.
The development of a stronger chemical, tebuthiuron, commonly known as Spike 20, was briefly allowed to be tested in the Andes on the coca crops. The herbicide's producer Dow Chemical strongly opposed its use, however, stating that it was not environmentally safe, for it could poison the ground water and destroy land for future agriculture. Dismissing such concerns, U.S. Ambassador Curtis Kamman said, "For net environmental positive effect, getting rid of coca is the best course for Colombia." On the front page of The New York Times the controversy over the chemical hit the mainstream public. Soon after, the Colombian government backed down from their agreement to use Spike 20.
However, the war on drugs continues. When announcing a contribution of $1.3 billion to Colombia in aid on January 11, 2000, President Clinton said, "We have a compelling national interest in reducing the flow of cocaine and heroin to our shores... and promoting peace, democracy and economic growth in Colombia."
Yet since 1990, Colombian drug production has increased every successive year. There are millions of drug users in the United States alone. Instead of trying to decrease the cocaine supply by spending billions of dollars on helicopters and chemical warfare which destroys the natural environment and cultural lifestyle, the "war on drugs" money could be spent more effectively on programs to help the users.
There is some evidence to suggest links to government corruption from both the U.S. and Colombian officials in connection with narcotics. According to the August 7, 1999 issue of The New York Times, Laurie Hiett, wife of Colonel J.C. Hiett, commander of the U.S military anti-drug operations in Colombia was indicted on August 4, 1999 for shipping cocaine via embassy mail to contacts in New York. Another corrupt governmental drug link is from a November issue of The Washington Post, which stated that 1,639 pounds of cocaine worth approximately $12.7 million was found in the cargo hold of a Colombian air-force plane transporting six Colombian military officers.
Yet the Colombia I met, is much more than these statistics. I arrived in Barranquila on the Caribbean coast. The airport was virtually empty. As I wandered, I felt the language change to a more rapid pace compared to the laid-back lilt the Costa Ricans used. I spotted the only taxi outside.
The taxi driver smiled brightly as I approached, yet my heart was pounding. I feared possible hostility towards North Americans. Every Latin country I had been to so far had a particular distain for Americans. I mulled over everything I had heard about massacres, rapes and torture, the abuses of human rights and corruption and kept wary.
The taxi driver waved to me. There were no other vehicles around."You're lucky," he explained. "I am the last taxi today. I was just about to go home too. Where are you going, Miss? " His accent was filled with "th"sounds. It took me a moment to comprehend. I leaned over the dusty window and pointed to an inexpensive hotel listing in a travel book . We discussed a price.
While driving, we spoke briefly about ourselves and he asked who I had come to visit during Semana Santa. He was startled to find that I really paid very little attention to Semana Santa, and I had only come here to experience Colombia. He seemed to pity me for being such a lost soul with no family during the holy time. I shrugged, happy to experience the warm, humid breeze.
On gravel city streets, the car slowed as we approached the hotel. Dust swirled from the hooves of a horse pulling a cart. Partido Liberal signs were plastered next to Partido Social Conservador along decrepit fences which adjoined neglected plaster buildings. I was accustomed to the sights, as I travelled mostly poor communities in Latin America, and I did not find it worrisome. Yet, the taxi driver shook his head.
"I cannot take you there. That place is a brothel."
"Is it run by prostitutes or do prostitutes use the hotel sometimes?" I asked.
"Prostitutes go there, but it is feo!" There was that ugly word again, and I didn't hesitate to respond. "Take me there. I always sleep in my own sleeping bag," I told him. "I am only going to spend one night here, and then I'm off to Cartagena in the morning. I am sure I will be just fine."The taxi driver shook his head again. "Please, Miss, it is not safe. I know a better place for you to stay and it is very clean and safe. It is not expensive." I wasn't sure if he was truly concerned or if he wanted to line his own pocketbook with a hotel-pays-the-taxi-driver-a-tip-for-bringing-customers-game, but I decided to go along and find out.
The thin, flat roofs and make-shift walls changed dramatically within a few driving blocks to polished colonial and shiny modern buildings. I gasped. It was an almost alarming contrast. Middle class just didn't exist. He stopped the taxi in front of a grand entrance. I had never actually stayed at a "fancy" hotel during my recent travels. I didn't see the need, or have the finances. Often, I would find that in the more modest places existed a warm interior and community which I appreciated more than the glamour. I knew this place was out of my budget range, but he insisted that I at least go and see a room. I was curious, so I agreed.
I left my pack sack in the trunk of the taxi. A bell hop took me to the fifth floor. Rich red, green and gold accented the high-ceilinged walls in exactly the right proportions. Along the halls, antiques and treasures spoke of a distant colonial past. The bellhop opened the door to an immaculate room. A cherry wood frame cradled the crisp white sheets lining a giant mattress. A bar fridge sat beside. As I was discovering that the shower had hot water, the taxi driver came up with my pack sack and plopped it on the floor.
"No, No," I protested, "I can't afford this place. It is very nice, but please you must take me back to the other hotel."
The taxi driver shook his head again. "I am sorry Miss, I cannot take you there. It is dangerous. It is Semana Santa and I have already paid for the room. I bring clients here all the time, so they gave me a very good price for the night."
The shock on my face required him to add, "It is Holy Week. All I ask is for you to return the gesture sometime. This is how kindness spirals. I will come tomorrow. There is a bus that leaves at 11 am. for Cartagena and I will take you since it is hard to find a taxi this week."
He smiled and spun around to leave. I could see a fraying rip where his shirt needed mending. The door closed behind him before I could say more. I double-bolted my door, not sure what to make of his kindness, but for the next month and a half within Colombia, I came to love the country.A Demonstration in Canada
Three years later, back in Canada, I read in a local alternative paper that a candlelight vigil was being held honoring the war dead of Colombia. This is where I met Luis. I recognized the intensity in his eyes immediately.
He stood before the small crowd of mainly Latins flashing up slides of bludgeoned bodies. One photo showed rows of bullet-ridden corpses amid a church-front, another from a student protest which turned into a military-led massacre. The final photo was of a priest, Camilo Tores. He hung from a cross which his torturers placed him upon; large gouges and wounds marred the entirety of his body. Luis told the non-Latin Canadians in the crowd that the killing has been constant for over the last 40 years.
He talked briefly about a bloody period known as: La Violencia (1949-53, 1958-65). This period began with violent confrontations between the two political parties: the Conservatives and Liberals and with it the dynamics of class struggle.
I had come to the vigil to try to understand the reason for the killings, but as I had already experienced, Colombia is complicated. Even the year I spent living in Latin America gave me only a glimpse of the politics. I spotted Luis amongst the crowd after his film presentation.
I told him my name and that I was interested in highlighting the recent problems in Colombia. I talked of my concern that the U.S. Government was proposing to send $1.3 billion in military aid, and I added that I believed the money could be better spent on building a future for the country, not demolishing it with more war.
"I am a political refugee," Luis said. He promised to consider meeting with me and took my phone number.
The following day, I called the International Refugee Society. I was told that lawyers advise people not to talk about their specific cases while awaiting status. Besides the legalities, people fear retribution to friends and family members back home. A few days later I received a phone call from Luis. He would meet me only if I promised he would not be identified. I agreed and we made plans to meet at a coffee shop.
It had been three years since I had been in a fully Spanish conversation. He spoke rapidly and to the point. He could not discuss the specifics of why he had fled the country, but we talked about Colombian issues. "Only two percent of the population owns the land," he began. "There is only so long you can force people to be enslaved labor with poor wages; then there will be civil unrest. It is a matter of who is in control and presently the interest of the 'national corporations' outweighs the general good for the country. Profit is being made in this resource-rich country, but it is not being distributed. When you have oppression, eventually you will have violence because it is human nature to fight to survive. Human rights abuses is a phrase synonymous with Colombia. There are more displaced Colombian people within their own borders than anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. People are afraid. The answer is not spending more on military. Colombians must learn how to share." After talking for hours, he gave me a stack of reading materials he had printed.
Later I compared his notes with the ones I had already collected. There were discrepancies about what was truly known about Colombia. I called up a Canadian speaker, Margo, who had been presenting her views the night of the vigil. I asked her what can be done. She sighed, "I don't know the answers. I don't know if anyone does."
"I know one thing," I replied. "It's time to say 'no more' - No Mas!"
Protesters marched in cities across Colombia on October 24,1999. Over one-quarter of the population took part waving ten million white flags and green "peace" ribbons. The protest was called No Mas. People are calling out to stop the violence and cease the injustice of this war. Life is simply too precious.
I will always remember the soldiers and their rifles on every street-corner in Colombia. I will always remember children on the streets of Cartagena inhaling aerosol spray from plastic bags to get high. I will always remember the gringo hostel, jammed with foreigners snorting as much cheap cocaine as they could. I will always remember seeing shades of mountain colors I have never seen before. I will always remember laughter that had nothing to do with intimidation. I will also always remember the friends I made who showed me that Colombia is not feo.
My name is Michelle Renay Johnson and I support peace and justice in Colombia.
Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2000, page 12. Some rights reserved.
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